Pope St. John Paul II is known as the “Philosopher Pope.” His writings show he was influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas, as many popes were, but other philosophical strands also shaped his thinking. One of the most important was phenomenology.
Let’s dig deeper into this school of thought.
What is phenomenology?
There are many threads of phenomenology and phenomenologists don’t all agree on everything. This makes it hard to give one all-encompassing definition.
A good starting point is to define phenomenology as the “study of phenomena.” Phenomena are the elements of our experience. This includes everything from romantic love to simply noticing a coffee cup sitting in front of you.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, phenomenology “studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first-person point of view.” The goal is to give us a picture of reality at its most refined, comprehensive, and clear. It’s a way to return to the things themselves as we experience them and not leave anything behind.
Why is phenomenology important?
Many philosophers focused too much on our inner thoughts and not enough on the outside world. Some of them even treated the outside world as merely a figment of our imagination. For them, we are constantly imposing our thoughts on the outside world, rather than being informed by it.
Unlike some of these other philosophies, phenomenology places great importance on everything outside our mind. It’s interested in the intersection between this outside world and our consciousness of it and the meaning we derive from it. The study then attempts to describe the experience without imposing too many preconceived notions.
What was phenomenology’s influence on Pope St. John Paul II?
We should start by mentioning that John Paul II didn’t adopt every aspect of phenomenological thought. Not all phenomenologists were Catholic and the pope made sure the ideas he embraced were compatible with the faith.
We can see the influence of phenomenology in many of the pope’s thoughts, including his teachings on sex and gender. If you’ve read his works on this subject, you were perhaps surprised at how accurate and illuminating they were. He counseled many married couples and was very attentive to the experiences they had. Rather than imposing a theoretical view of sex and gender, he sought to illuminate their experiences through God’s revelation.
The Church has long held the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas in high esteem and rightly so. Pope St. John Paul II helped demonstrate that aspects of phenomenology are not contrary to Aquinas and Church teaching. Rather, they enrich them. The ultimate proof of the value of phenomenological thought for Catholics is the rich body of writings the pope left behind — writings rarely equaled in papal history for their depth and beauty.